Waka hourua crews from around New Zealand and the Pacific will sail to Wellington for the opening of the capital's 31st New Zealand Festival, an event expected to attract thousands of spectators.

As the twin-hulled ocean-going waka arrive, they'll be welcomed with a 1000-strong new haka written especially for Wellington with a full musical score by award-winning composer Warren Maxwell.

A Waka Odyssey: Kupe launches three-weeks of arts and cultural performances in the capital, which also includes a contemporary version of the ballet Swan Lake, Nigerian playwright Inua Ellams' five-star musical Barbershop Chronicles, Vietnamese circus A O Lang Pho and the NZ Symphony Orchestra performing the music of Star Wars: A New Hope for a live screening of the original film.

Outgoing festival director Shelagh Magadza says A Waka Odyssey celebrates the voyaging history all New Zealanders share while signalling themes that will echo through the rest of her final programme: epic journeys, a sense of discovery, home and belonging.

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Announcing the full selection at Te Papa last night, Magadza says as this is her last NZ Festival, she wants to look toward the future and get a glimpse as to where the country might be heading.

"A waka odyssey recognises the fact that we all came from somewhere else but the stories around those initial voyages are so immense and exciting, and reveal a certain kind of knowledge in this country, that they should be part of the conversation about where we derive our national identity from."

She says artists work in a global context and are, more than ever, responding to the politics of the world they see around them. At the same time, audiences look to arts festivals for events that unite them.

"There are similarities between music and performing arts festivals in that people are looking for something that brings them together, gives then an authentic connection on a human level and being a live experience offers something that can't be replicated."

Once again, the NZ Festival partners with Auckland Arts Festival to bring productions to both cities. These are:

A O Lang Pho, which tells the story of village and city life in Vietnam.
Us/Them, described as a powerful piece of physical and narrative theatre about the 2004 siege of a Beslan school by Chechen separatists.
Bless the Child, by local playwright Hone Kouka and Tawata Productions.
OrphEus, a new dance opera choreographed by NZ dance superstar Michael Parmenter and starring the NZ Dance Company with an early music score performed by Grammy Award-winning American tenor Aaron Sheehan, baroque ensemble Latitude 37 and special guests.
•Cecile McLorin Salvant performs jazz standards and songs from her latest album, Dreams and Daggers.
• The Royal New Zealand Ballet production of The Piano: The ballet.

One of the five biggest festivals in Australasia, the NZ Festival has sold over two million tickets to an audience of more than five million since it began 1986. Magadza says it's normal for festival directors to serve three terms, as she has done, before making way for someone new to "shake things up".

"I have no idea what I'm going to do next and I'm going to keep it that way for a while."

Lowdown:
What: New Zealand Festival
Where & when: Wellington, various venues; February 23 - March 18, 2018